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Here are the top Tigers players unprotected in the Rule 5 draft

It’s a list of players that will make you say, “Oh, that guy!”

Jay Markle/Bless You Boys

The deadline to protect players from the upcoming Rule 5 draft passed last Wednesday. The Detroit Tigers opted to add six prospects to their 40-man roster, leaving little for other teams to pick from in terms of high-upside talent. The team can’t protect everyone, though, and a few players invariably slip through the cracks. Let’s take a look at who the Tigers could potentially lose when December rolls around and teams make their selections.

RHP Wilkel Hernandez

When the Los Angeles Angels sent Hernandez to the Tigers as part of the return for Ian Kinsler after the 2017 season, he was considered a lottery ticket prospect — young and projectable with a decent fastball and plenty of work yet to be done. Hernandez still fits that description, but we learned a lot about him in 2019. He logged over 100 innings with the Single-A Whitecaps, which was by far the most in-game work he has had in a season. His fastball sits in the low 90s, but can get up to 96 miles per hour. His strikeout rate wasn’t all that impressive, but the 20-year-old limited walks and home runs while throwing strikes, and ended the season with a 3.26 FIP.

In their preseason Tigers prospect list, FanGraphs commented briefly on Hernandez. “His curveball has good shape, but needs more power.” Hernandez’s curve is one of two off-speed offerings utilized by the righthander. The other is a circle changeup that was praised by former Whitecaps pitching coach Jorge Cordova for its improvements after the 2018 season.

A year ago, this blurb would have ended by stating that Hernandez had little chance of attracting interest and even less chance of sticking in the majors. Today, though, the Toronto Blue Jays’ handling of Elvis Luciano this year — a similar pitcher they selected from rookie ball — makes it a foggier question.

RHP Wladimir Pinto

A relic of the Dave Dombrowski regime, Pinto is just the kind of player we often wrote epitomized that era. He’s a hard-throwing relief prospect signed from Maracay, Venezuela back in 2014, and has posted huge strikeout numbers at every step along the way. In fact, opponents failed to score a single earned run on him from August 27, 2016 until May 23, 2018, a streak spanning nearly 21 months and three levels of competition. His power stuff would probably translate just fine to the major leagues, and Steamer’s projections have him striking out over a batter per inning at the highest level.

Without much command to speak of, however, Pinto’s exclusion from the 40-man roster is hardly a surprise. He struggles to harness his electric stuff, and that’s presumably a bit scary for any team who would consider stashing him on their MLB roster. That said, if he can take his game to the next level, he’s probably a late inning arm. If a team thinks they can unlock that potential, they should absolutely try.

Los Mochis v. Mesa Solar Sox Photo by Buck Davidson/MLB Photos via Getty Images

OF Jake Robson

The 2016 eighth-rounder has a shot to be selected by a team this season simply because of his proximity to the major leagues. He isn’t the toolsiest of players, but has managed to stick at every level he has played thanks to his speed and plate discipline. He posted a robust 11.2 percent walk rate at Triple-A Toledo this season. While some of his stats were boosted by a very high batting average in balls in play (BABIP), he has always over-performed in that department. Since turning pro, he has a career .388 BABIP and is one of the few players whose speed may allow him to continue near that pace.

Despite his wheels, Robson isn’t a great defender and is a better fit in left field than center. His swing is also not geared to ever provide much power, and he has an alarmingly high ground ball rate (over 50 percent). His overall offensive performance was six percent below average in 2019 (according to wRC+) and he is not prepared to take on a full-time role in 2020. But a team looking to add depth to their outfield or extra speed to the back end of their roster could take a flier on Robson.

RHP Carlos Guzman

Guzman burst onto the prospect radar after reports came out of the Tigers’ backfields of a highly athletic converted infielder with a good fastball and an overwhelming changeup. Unfortunately, his much-anticipated 2019 season was a forgettable one. His full-season debut didn’t go as planned — his walk rate increased, his strikeout rate took a tumble and he wound up missing most of the season with an undisclosed elbow injury. The changeup, reported as a plus offering, was mostly missing in action. His breaking ball was an uninteresting option and functioned as more of a second look.

It’s possible Guzman was simply unable to get into a groove, or maybe his elbow was bothering him for longer than we realized. In any case, one of the few true pluses of the season was establishing his fastball as a weapon. It has vicious life and runs in on right-handed batters with enough velocity to cause them issues. It isn’t enough to float the profile, though, and uncertainty about his health and whether his stuff will bounce back in 2020 means that he will almost certainly go undrafted this winter.

Jay Markle/Bless You Boys

RHP Elvin Rodriguez

This slender righthander joined the Tigers organization after the 2017 season as part of the trade that sent Justin Upton to the Angels. Rodriguez’s gameplay since then has been nothing remarkable; he pitched well with the Whitecaps but labored a bit in High-A Lakeland. He does display starter’s traits, though, and is young enough to gain steam yet. His tools are solid, and he gained some attention from prospect gurus this year; he broke onto MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 Tigers prospects list, and landed at No. 18 on our midseason list.

Rodriguez is an unlikely candidate to be selected by a team in this year’s Rule 5 draft because the risk involved is simply too high. His fastball isn’t the kind that can blow away hitters and he relies more on good sequencing and hitting his spots to extract value from his off-speed pitches. That isn’t the kind of profile you would want to throw into the major league fire, but he’s young and it’s possible (although only remotely so) some team may decide they like what he brings to the table enough to bite the bullet.

Extra Credit

RHP Nolan Blackwood posted a 1.76 ERA and 3.19 FIP in Double-A but he doesn’t have the stuff for high-stress outings in the majors at this point. Changeup artist RHP Logan Shore started the season on a rough note but managed to put things together by the end. His fastball probably will prevent him from making the jump to the majors. RHP Zac Houston induces tons of ground balls and strikeouts. He dominated Double-A but got destroyed in Toledo. An intriguing fastball-changeup combination made RHP Mark Ecker a decent draft pick in 2016, but he has had minimal success as a pro.

The Tigers have given OF Jose Azocar every chance to succeed, but he can’t quite put it all together. He could be a dynamic contributor if he ever learned how to take an average number of walks, but is unprepared for the major leagues. Speed and positional flexibility make C/IF/OF Brady Policelli interesting, especially coming off a very strong offensive campaign in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League. OF Cam Gibson has a famous name and plays with the same fire as his father did, but he doesn’t do anything particularly well and is overly aggressive at the plate.